Cybersecurity Canon Candidate Book Review: Homo Deus: A Brief History of Tomorrow

We modeled the Cybersecurity Canon after the Baseball Hall of Fame and the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame, except for cybersecurity books. We have more than 25 books on the initial candidate list, but we are soliciting help from the cybersecurity community to increase the number. Please write a review and nominate your favorite. 

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Executive Summary

Go back not so far in time, and priorities in life were simple: survival from critical things such as famine, disease and war. The author Harari highlights how through evolution and technology, our world is evolving and the above may no longer be the concerns they once were.  Focuses and priorities are changing.  Today there are numerous digital projects aimed at increasing life expectancy.  Yet if we could live forever, what would be our purpose? Would we stop being creative explorers as protecting immortality would become a new key focus?

Maybe that’s for the future. However, Harari highlights, as a society, what we hold most sacred as a result of the ongoing digitization of a world that is changing: from Deo-centric (God focused) to homo-centric (human experience focused) to data-centric.  Gods argued humans are sacred and only later did people dare say this themselves. Dataists claim IoT is sacred to serve humans. How long until they become sacred in their own right?

Homo Deus poses a very interesting thought. Is everything in life simply some form of algorithm? Is life one big data processing machine?  If this is true, then is there really free thought or is it simply the output of differing factors, random or deterministic?

If this is indeed the case, what happens when technology entities that are non-conscious can generate intelligence from this to know us better than we know ourselves?  Is that a good or bad thing?  Which is more valuable, intelligence or consciousness?

I would recommend this book even though it does not answer all of these questions by any means. By looking both historically and in the near-term future, it will challenge you to think about these questions philosophically. It will reframe some of the considerations of how and why we continue down the digital transformation journey and what your role is as a person and cybersecurity professional.

As people, we record, share and upload information. As cybersecurity leaders we have a like responsibility to ensure that this is done safely and instils trust and confidence.


Review

Today, more people die from sugar consumption than starvation. Through science and collaboration, humankind has managed to reduce or solve many of the factors that shorten human life. So, what does the future hold? Today, scientists are looking at how to extend life, be that through genetics or cyborg upgrades. Yet these solutions still rely on the human brain — the command centre that processes the electrical impulses in our bodies.  

In the 21st century, the study of these impulses and what makes us the unique and dominant species on our planet is under much scrutiny. Are we simply a complex collection of algorithms, or is there more to the Homo sapien? Analysis of the human brain has proven that our free spirits, or souls, may simply be causality, driven by internal sections of the brain fighting between random and deterministic influences. They leverage the experiences we have gleaned throughout our lives to define outcomes (our algorithms). If this is true, then could humans have their thought processes influenced? Could elections be swayed by aspects such as fake news? Hold on — didn’t that already happen? 

What becomes interesting is if we can recognise this and, more critically, as computational power increases, could we spot it fast enough? There are several examples in the book of how digital trading platforms have led to billions and trillions of dollars in impact on markets as misinformation or errors were processed faster than humans could analyse the data. With digital transformation still effectively in its infancy, just how much control can and should we hand over, and who will be the guardians of it in the future?

Strangely, it may seem that the book at times delves into discussions about religion, mainly around how its stories enable beliefs, be they positive or negative. Yet it highlights that today, there is a growing new religion, which is humanism. Humanism outlines that the summit in life is to have taken the measure to feel everything that is human, and that knowledge is really just the product of experiences x sensitivity (an algorithm).

For me, the simple truth is that science can be used to prove truths/facts. Religion, which continues to evolve in many guises, is the collection of unquantifiable stories that we chose to believe or challenge. Take, as examples, plagues and famine, which would have been attributed to angry gods in past centuries. Today, science can provide alternative reasons for many such events. Yet whilst you might see this book as trying to dispel one or the other, it actually argues for the interdependence between science and religion.

Whilst much of the book looks at our evolutionary past, the final third really tries to peek into the future by coming back to some very fundamental themes, such as how much are we willing to trade our privacy for the benefits it could provide? For example, being able to spot illnesses or pandemics early, based on deviations from our own and broader norms, through a global interconnected societal web of data. Likewise, whilst wars have typically been linked to some level of economic growth, if information is becoming the most valuable commodity, then will wars be based on this in the future? Take this to the Nth extreme: do humans lose their value in the future because of technology, and at what point may we consider leaving our physical bodies for some other form, be that on the road to immortality or simply to make space travel easier?

I remember back in my early computer-science study days having to complete a stream on how IT would impact society. Be it Orson Wells or William Gibson, there are numerous fictional tales of a dystopian technology-based future. This book is an intellectually stimulating review of how humans evolved to become the dominant species we are today.  But it challenges us to ask ourselves some very thought-provoking questions.  How will technology impact our future, will we liberally remain in this dominant role we have today, and if we do not, who or what will take on this role in the future?

 

Conclusion

Watch the news and war, famine, and disease all grab headlines. Yet over recent decades, technology has changed each one of these. So, what are the challenges of tomorrow? Will they be immortality and happiness, or will AI really enable machines to take over the world?

What separates the human species from other species? Is it our ability to function across large inter-societal groups, exchanging algorithms and data? Yet if all life is essentially complex sequences of algorithms that interact, what is it that makes humans unique, and when will computers simply be more valuable in their programable capacity to handle these algorithms?

None of these questions are truly answered in this book, which is good, but it will make you ponder them for yourself. Finally, if you did live forever, how much would you actually do? If every task could be potentially life threatening, would immortality mean boring?

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